Monday, April 18, 2011

Rearranging and Shuffling Scenes

Over the years, the elements of writing that I've had to focus on during revisions has changed. When I first started writing, clarity was a problem for me. I had to learn to see my stories from an outsider's point of view. Then, I remember a time where I had to focus on endings that felt satisfying.

Lately, much of my revision energy has been focused on rearranging the pieces in a scene and shuffling those scenes around in a story. The fact that this simple thing has occupied so much of my time is funny to me. It feels like such an easy thing, and yet I'm finding that it's having a big effect on how engaging my prose can be (in my opinion).

Today, for example, I was working on Cyberlama, and I wrote a chapter that discussed a news story in which one man murdered another man. I wrote on the topic from start to finish, including events before the murder, the actual murder, and then some people's speculations on why the murder had occurred. But, when I was done, I asked myself what would happen if I didn't get into the speculations right away. Instead, I took that chunk out of the chapter and pasted it in several pages later, after I had already written about a couple of other, unrelated topics in between.

For me, shuffling the scenes this way gives my story more tension and also makes the speculations more powerful somehow. There's more tension because the murder story doesn't quite feel complete. It's like a subtle form of a cliffhanger. There are some questions left unanswered. I think breaking up the scene also makes the scene more powerful because when the speculations are farther away from the actual murder events, they resonate they resonate beyond all of the material I inserted between the murder and speculation. By bringing it back at a later time, it feels like something important that keeps re-emerging in my narrator's mind.

I find that I also rearranging things to keep similar elements closer together. I had, for example, a scene where a woman brought her violin in to play for a group of people. When I originally wrote the scene, the violin performance was broken up by the thoughts of some of the audience members. While I was revising, though, I ended up putting all of the audience members' thoughts at the end, so that the the performance was told in one continuous passage. I felt like that made the concert experience more vivid.

Has anyone else focused on moving elements around like this? Like I say, I'm not sure why it's taking up so much of my attention at the moment. But, I'm realizing that it's a powerful revision tool, one that I hadn't taken advantage of as much in the past.


  1. This is a huge issue for me right now, I am trying to rearrange and shuffle certain scenes, but then find I have to read further and change something else. For me at least it's the only way for the story to make sense... Most of the issues I am facing however invlove the first three chapters. It's frustrating becuase it's a wip and I really want to move on but seem so stuck.

  2. Jessica, That can indeed be frustrating. I remember being stuck on a first chapter for a very long time. Even though I would write later scenes, I felt pinned down at the beginning because I knew it wasn't working. Good luck! I hope you figure it out!

  3. The rhythm and movement of the story and themes are really important to me, so I move stuff around a lot when I'm revising. Even when I'm drafting, I'll write passages that I know don't belong where I've put them, but I figure I'll find the right places for them later.

    This sort of gets to a conversation Mighty Reader and I had a few weeks ago. I was saying that, in a lot of ways, story telling is the process of giving information to the reader, one bit at a time, and you have to decide which bits to give first, and each bit is understood relative to every bit you've given already.

    This weekend I was typing up my first draft of the WIP and a couple of pages in, I came across a paragraph that seemed to have a lot of movement and forward-pointing language, and I cut it from its orginal spot and now it's the opening paragraph of the novel:

    They’d arrived, as had most of the other guests, only the day before. That had been Sunday, early in the afternoon. James had driven down the coastal road, the Austin’s top down under a clear sky that turned dark almost the moment Julia had spotted the long wooden bridge stretching across the channel. In the time it took to motor over the bridge and up the drive to the hotel, the sky had filled with storm and rain. Julia thought it quite like something from a Brontë novel. A bad omen for somebody. Not for Julia, though. She was here on this picturesque island to spend a week privately celebrating. It had best not storm every night, else Julia would certainly be put out of sorts.

    It's not the sort of arresting image I'd normally choose for a first paragraph, but it seems to work for this book. We'll see. Lots of shuffling to come, I'm sure.

  4. I have done it, and it is very time consuming, but the results are usually worth it. I think next time around I'll have cue cards with the basic scenes, and corresponding data (page no.s etc) on them... they're easier to shuffle that way!

  5. Scott, I don't know--that image seems quite arresting to me. The bridge and the movement over it is very clear, and I like that it holds all of the attention. It's lovely. And, it does feel like it's setting me up for something exciting to happen. I like the first sentence and the simple description of the long bridge. Thanks for the example!

  6. S.M., I tried the cue card approach with my first novel. Somehow it didn't work for me. I killed the momentum for me somehow, maybe because I started to become more formulaic to make the cards fit together. I'm not sure.

  7. "maybe because I started to become more formulaic to make the cards fit together"

    That's one of the real dangers of outlining, I think. There's a tendency to sort of try to imitate the familiar, to experiment less. I think that's because outlining can too often seem like a task to be finished as soon as possible in order to get to the actual writing, rather than as a creative act. I try hard these days to make my outlines more a bunch of doors leading to impossible places than a line of boxes holding events all in a row. If you know what I mean.

  8. Yeah, Scott, I think you've figured out a better way to make an outline work. When I start, I do just try to get it done and "right." I know I shouldn't. At any rate, now I'm not even really doing first drafts anymore. I write a little and revise a lot and slowly creep forward that way. It's quite a change, but I've been liking the results.

  9. I'm like the other Scott - I sometimes write passages that I have no idea where they're going to go within the scope of the narrative. Then, as I reach a point, I'll remember scene/passage and realize "here's the perfect place". I'll also cut scenes during the revision process, only to use them at a later point.

    Writing is dynamic like that. It is not written in stone. It is changeable. A scene might fit perfectly in one place in the rough draft, but not so much in a second or third draft. Highlight the section, Ctrl X, open new document, Ctrl P . . . and voila, a scene set adrift to hopefully find a home on some other page.


  10. Scott M. (and anyone else who cares to chime in), I'm curious, where do you leave those bits that still haven't found a home? Are then in the same document as the rest of your story? I try to do that, but then I get annoyed about having it hiding in the back, so I eventually end up deleting them or moving them to a new document that I forget about.

  11. I do all my revisions on paper, so that's where I keep my discarded stuff: in the old printout. Mostly, when something is cut it's gone forever. Almost every time I've tried to reuse material I have to rewrite it so much that it's easier to start from scratch.

  12. Domey - I always create a new document titled: omitted sections. This document usually contains things that I totally cut and never use as well. Then again, some scenes can be used in different projects, so . . .

  13. I did this a lot with Breakaway's first chapter. I finally got it right, thank heavens. I think I've rearranged the beginning of that book about 800 times. No joke.

    Monarch was a huge shuffle for me, too, especially with all the flashback jungle stuff and where to put it.

    I think this is really important to get right in novels. It's what makes storytelling STORYtelling for me - rather than just writing down a sequence of events with some tension.

    Scott B.: About outlines - I keep mine so loose that the entire story could change depending on how I write the scenes. That's the only way for me to outline.

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  15. Sorry, that first comment needed editing and rearranging :)

    I noticed in my own writing I write scenes sort of backwards. There is the outcome, then some sort of flashback with all the relevant info, and back to the outcome to transition to the next scene.

    So I do a lot of rearranging. It can be time consuming. What I've learned in this process however, is that I think of scenes differently while I'm writing them as opposed to revising. While writing it, there is an order to my thoughts to get everything down. During revision, I already know the "what", now I'm adding the sequence, and emotional investment.

    Maybe it works somewhat the same for you, Domey. I need the facts first to get organized, and the meaning comes clearer with distance from the event.

    As with real life, you know "what" happened in an event, and can speculate some about reasons/motivations, but the event has to be investigated so logical conclusions can be drawn.

    You seem to have an analytical mind Domey, and probably have to work through the experiment (scene) before drawing concrete conclusions (motivations/emotions and transition into the next scene).

    Just a thought about processes. It took me a long time to figure out my writing style, and to be comfortable that it isn't always like everyone else's.


  16. Scott and Scott, thanks. I've tried the separate document before and find that I hardly ever get back to it. But, I do think there's value in writing for the first time, deleting it, and then writing it again. The second approach is often better for me.

    Michelle, that's a good point. As I'm taking a journalism class right now, I'm learning a lot about how the drama of the story can change even though the facts of the story don't. A writer can make a story more powerful just by reorganizing the order in which we provide information.

    Donna, as you describe that thought process, it is indeed very similar to how my mind works. I kind of creep along and write things before I know what I'm actually writing. Then, I look back on it, reflect, and try to bring out the material that somehow came out on the page. I guess it is analytical. I'm better at looking backwards and analyzing it rather than being able to look forwards and plan ahead. I also have no earthquake preparedness kit in my home. Go figure.

  17. I always leave whatever I cut at the bottom of the chapter until I am absolutely sure I don't want to use it. Then, and only then, will I put it into a scrap file. I never delete anything because I found out the hard way I may need it again.

    I have shuffled scenes for impact. I had a petite mystery in one scene that I deliberately moved further into the book to allow the reader to guess what happened before I told them.


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